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Momma Poppa Tennis – 28 Tips for Teaching Your Kids – Part 1

John White

John is a USPTA Elite Professional with a master's degree in counseling. He has a coaching practice in Baltimore, MD and publishes podcasts and eBooks on positive thinking in sports.

This is Part 1 of a 2 part post. You can view Part 2 by clicking here.

I wince when I see parents out there with one kid and three doggie balls.

They hold the balls above their head and flick ‘em at the ground like lightning bolts. The poor kid misses the first, nails the parent with the second, and hits the third one out of the park. The parent’s pain is palpable. They leave after twenty minutes. We lose a lot of potential players that way.04-4b

Tennis should be taught in every high school in the country by a certified pro and not some English teacher who has to do it. There aren’t many games you can do for a lifetime with so many benefits. Under-10 tennis should be taught in every elementary school, also by a certified pro. Bingo, there goes our obesity problem, and here comes the next boom.

The Quick Start program for kids under 10 that the USTA launched in May of 2008 has been a big success at getting kids into the game. So, if your kids are under 10, go to and learn about the short courts, little rackets and big sponge balls and where to go for it. It’s going to get us a whole bunch of new players.

At some point, however, the piper has to be paid. You eventually have to hit real balls with big rackets on big courts. So, this is for teaching kids over 10. These are just some things that worked for me in 40 years of teaching the game. Maybe one or two will work for you.

“Bucket of Balls Hops Mark, Spots Large Hatchet!”


What To Hold Tennis Balls In01-2b

If you’re going to teach your kids tennis, you’re going to need some balls and something to hold them in. Shadow-swings are nice, but eventually you have to hit the ball. A whole bunch of times.

Pros use hoppers. You’re not a pro, you’re a momma poppa. Do not try the three-doggie-ball constant-retrieval method, it doesn’t work. The balls go everywhere and won’t come back. I wince when I see parents out there with one kid and three doggie balls.

01-3bThey hold the balls above their head and flick ‘em at the ground like lightning bolts. The poor kid misses the first, nails the parent with the second, and hits the third one out of the park. The parent’s pain is palpable. They leave after twenty minutes. We lose a lot of potential players that way.

A 5-quart plastic paint bucket goes for three bucks at any hardware or paint store, and a buck at the Dollar Store. You need one for each student, plus a roll of duck tape. Reinforce the buckets (not the students) with the duck tape, otherwise they’re going to quack.

Each bucket holds about 18 balls. If you’ve got 4 kids, you need 401-1b buckets. That’s 72 balls. I’ll tell you where to get those in a second. But, by all means, get yourself some duck buckets. They make picking up easy, feeding fair, and upside down work great as targets. Get yourself some duck buckets.


Where To Get Free Tennis Balls

02-1bSeventy-two balls makes a “case.” A new case of balls can set you back sixty bucks. You don’t need to spend sixty bucks on new tennis balls. You can get balls for free. Just not new balls. Call the head pro or tennis director at a club or indoor barn in your area and tell them you are working with your kids and do they have any balls they can spare? Better yet, go visit them.

Ask to speak to the big dog (the owner, the head pro, the tennis director, not the assistant). Big dogs have the big picture: get people into this game. Everybody gets healthy, everybody has fun, everybody wins.02-2b

Teaching pros have to replace their balls once a month. Sometimes we just throw the old ones out and never know where they go. Probably the same place elephants go: secret burial grounds somewhere.

Do an online search for “tennis clubs” and add your zipcode. Get your map out and go visit them. Don’t be shy. Drop off a file-box with your name and number on the top. File-boxes are great.  They have lids, look neat and stack easy. They don’t clutter up the tennis office.02-3b

Ask the big dog if they can please save you some balls. You’re trying to get your kids or grandkids started. At that point the pro will probably tell you about their junior program. Tell them if your kids express any interest, you’ll be back for lessons. Come back in a week and see what you get. It’s like a crab pot or a box of chocolates.


What About Tennis Ball Hoppers?

03-1bSo, you’ve got yourself some balls, the kids have each got duck buckets. Now what? Well, if you are serious, and flush at the moment, get yourself a hopper. Doesn’t have to be a Whopper Hopper, just a hopper. Whopper Hoppers hold upwards of 100 balls, and unless your name is Arnie, too heavy to carry.

If you don’t have a hopper, you can also use a box. Boxes are free. Cut some handholds in the side, but be careful, or your friends are going to call you “Stumpy.” If you cut your fingers off, it’s going to be tough to demonstrate grips. Liquor stores keep sturdy boxes at the counter. 03-2bTall wine boxes work best. You don’t have to buy or consume the wine (although, depending on the kids, it sometimes helps).

Duck-tape the bottom of your boxes and the sides, or they won’t last very long. A nice advantage of ball hoppers over boxes is that hoppers invert to make stands for feeding and serving; boxes do not. Go online and order yourself a hopper. They start at twenty bucks.

03-3bI like hoppers that hold 72 balls and I always carry two. You only need one. If you decide to turn pro, get a shopping basket. They hold a gazillion balls. The pros at indoor clubs all have tennis carts with lids on top that lock, and they store them behind the curtains. Do a search for “tennis carts.” You’ll see them all.


How To Identify Your Tennis Balls

04-1bAlright, you’ve got yourself some balls, the kids have got duck-buckets, and you’ve got yourself a hopper, maybe. Balls are going to be going everywhere. Sometimes you’re not lucky enough to be the only one out there. I recommend branding your balls_or only using the same kind of balls. If you put a little smile on the seam with a magic marker, it’s not only easier to see the spin of the ball, it’s also easier to identify whose balls is whose.

Each time I add a new case of balls, I mark them a different color: red, green, or blue.  That way I can spot at a glance which are the best balls to use for the rally or the game: my green-weenies, my red-hots or my new-blues. 04-2bWhen balls get too old for the main basket, I stick ‘em with my pig sticker (a scratch awl on a Swiss army knife. I recommend getting one_their army has not lost a battle yet).

Then I take a black magic marker and color over the previous color. These are my dead heads. Dead-heads are good for short-court games with beginners. Short-court or mini-tennis is a rally in the four service boxes up there by the net.

04-4bElementary school teachers are always looking for balls for creative projects, and to stick on the bottoms of chairs. And dog owners always need balls. Take a bag of doggie-balls to the park_make yourself a new friend.

For other ideas, do a search for “things to do with tennis balls.” If you don’t get a million hits, I’d be surprised.


Spot Markers, Stories & Stretches

05-1bHere is something I learned one year in Arizona doing after-school tennis programs with elementary schools: get yourself some dots. Some people call them “rainbow spots” or “poly-dots.” Borrow them from the phys ed teacher if you have to, but get yourself some dots and keep them in your bag. They’re great for positions and targets. This tip is for mommas & poppas (or new teaching pros) who have inherited a bunch of munchkins. Instead of 1-2 of yours, you’ve got 6-8 of somebody else’s, and most of them are on drugs, usually Ritalin.

05-2bSit them down for a story, send them on a lap, then spread ’em out for stretches. Stand on the center-T and have everybody make a circle around you. The center-T is where the serve line meets the center serve line. If you’re dealing with 5-10 year old, you’ll be glad you’ve got these dots. They are little round non-slip spot-markers made out of heavy rubber. They come in several colors.

With little kids you get much better results with “find a dot” than “spread out.” They don’t understand “spread out.” If you don’t have dots, use the lines on the court. 05-3bWhere any two lines meet, you have an “L” or a “T.” Tell them: “Go find an L!” “Go find a T!”

By spreading them out, you avoid summer teeth (where some are here and some are there). Go around the horn. Have each one lead a stretch (you may have just created a coach.) If it’s a gymnastics kid, you’ll be crippled for weeks, but you’ll be a loose cripple.


Using The Quick Start Sponge Balls

06-1bAnybody who has ever tried to teach a beginner how to play tennis, knows that the main problem is the ball, not the court, not the racket_it’s the ball. A brand new tennis ball is too lively for beginners. It bounces them right out of the sport.

If you have to use new balls, or good balls, make sure you start your students in the short-court, rallying in the service boxes with bunts and pushes, not swings. Stuck-ducks and dead-heads are good for short-court. New balls that get wet aren’t bad. They’ve got lots of nap (fuzzy cover) and reduced bounce.06-3b

But, somebody finally came up with the perfect beginner ball for the under 10s. Get yourself some. They’re called Quick Start, or Quick Kid. They are large and soft. The whole thrust of the current campaign to get more munchkins into tennis is built around these two-tone spongies. It allows a beginner to experience a long rally, which is the main attraction in tennis. (Also works for adults.)

06-4bBecause these balls are big and soft and spongy, you don’t have to roll them to control them. You don’t need spin. You can smash ’em and they don’t go anywhere. Some go 36 feet, others go 60. Get a bucket full if you can afford it.

You can convert one normal size court into four short-courts by going sideways with portable nets. Some communities have gone whole-hog and built little short-court stadiums. Go to for the links.


“Throwing The Edge” On The Serve

07-4bWhat about the serve? Toss it up in the air and hit it over the net. Keep it simple. But, at some point they’re going to find out there’s no Santa Claus. To hit a topspin serve you have to glance, brush or nick the ball. Flat splats are not the answer. You be the judge of when to inform them of this.

To glance, brush, or nick a ball, the racket, as it leaves the upside-down backscratch position, goes after the ball like a hatchet that’s trying to turn itself into a hammer, but never quite makes it. It always nicks the ball on a slight slant. Ask them if they can think of another creature that starts out as one thing and winds up as another (tadpoles, caterpillars…).07-6b

Some teachers have success saying: “Throw the edge at the ball.” A fun edge-awareness drill is “Edgie Wedgie” where the students actually do hit the ball with the bottom edge of the racket. Initially balls go everywhere. Eventually they start heading off towards one o’clock for righties.

Beginners always want to use the “waitress-grip palm-up tray-position” with a forehand grip.07-2b Disabuse them of this notion. When the palm is up, the elbow is down.  You want the palm down and the elbow up.

Take them out on the field. Line them up for “hatchet throwing.” Have them throw their rackets as far as they can up the field, end over end. Bottom line: the serve is like a throw. We don’t want them to get sick, but we do want them to throw up.

“Scratching Other Roller Wheels, Fences Target Schools!”


The “J” Toss, And The “A” Frame

08-1bThere is no one formula for the teaching the serve, but start by telling them something they are doing right. If you look hard enough, you can always find 12 things anybody is doing right (beginning with breathing, not falling down, and holding on to the racket). Then, focus in on one thing about the toss and one thing about the hit that could stand a little work.

I like to start my beginners on the serve line, with the racket resting on their shoulder or hanging down their back in the “backscratch.” Tell the righties to “point to the post on the left, turn and toss to the post on the right, and make a big letter J.”08-3b

Reduce the number of bends by having them straighten out their tossing arm (this takes out the elbow) and turning their palm to the side like they are raising an ice cream cone or a glass of water (this takes out the wrist). For adults: champagne toast. Tell them to hold on to the ball until it’s above their head. Then, when they let go of it, have them turn their palm toward the net. This is called “pronating.” It prevents finger-flicking.

08-2bWhen the racket hits the ball, let the racket head come down first before the handle. Like diving into a pool instead of jumping. That puts the arm and racket in the “A” position or upside-down V. So, the toss makes the letter “J,” and the hit makes the letter “A.”

“J & A”. Just Aces.


Other Sports Resembling The Serve

09-2bWhat the wrist does on a serve in tennis is the same thing it does in football, baseball, basketball, and darts.  It pronates and flexes in that wrist-flicking motion, like you’re waving bye-bye to somebody. The palm turns forward and the fingers flap down and to the right.

Bring a basketball. Shoot some hoops. If you don’t have a hoop, just shoot the basketball back and forth for a minute from a couple feet away. If you do have a basketball net, have your kids fill up their buckets with tennis balls, spread out and shoot hoops with right hand and layups with the left. Or toss left-handed up thru the net, or into a hopper. 09-1bThrow balls into the backboard and catch ’em again. Turn a bucket, box or hopper upside-down and have them toss tennis balls underhand with their tossing hand into it.

Bring a rubber football. Toss it around for five minutes. Show how you turn the palm to the outside when you release a football. Invite the high school quarterback to give a demonstration. The Williams sisters threw footballs the length of the court, and they are the best servers in the women’s game.

09-4bIf you are at home, and have a dart board, show your munchkin carefully how to release a dart. All of these motions are similar to the serve in tennis. The most important part of the serve, in my opinion, after 40 years of teaching it, and playing a gazillion other sports involving projectiles, is the wrist.


Using A Paint Roller To Teach Spin

10-1bAt some point you must teach your kids the fundamental thing about controlling a tennis ball: to control the ball, you must roll the ball (tennis balls, baseballs, basketballs, footballs, ping pong, pool). To teach roll, get a roller.

Go to a hardware store. Buy yourself a cheap little paint roller for two or three bucks. Take the soft roller off the spindle and slide a tennis ball onto it. To slide a tennis ball onto it, you first have to carefully cut out two holes at the poles of the ball with a razor knife or a box cutter. Be careful or your friends are going to call you Stumpy.10-2b

This is a wonderful little gadget. I always carry one in my tennis bag. Made it up in ’75. The fundamental difference I see in watching self-taught players on public parks and high school courts versus kids who’ve had private lessons is this: the kids who have had private lessons know about topspin_and the ones who haven’t, don’t. Tennis is 80-90% topspin, 10-20% backspin. It’s not about flat. You must roll the ball to control the ball.

10-3bIf you want to get into the physics of it, try a search for “the Magnus Effect.” The 50 year old Gustav Magnus figured out in 1852 what makes tennis balls arc and dive and golf balls rise. He was not the first, but he got the credit for it. A 30 year old figured it out 200 years before him. Isaac Newton was watching his students play tennis at Cambridge in 1672 and accurately described the phenomenon: topspin arcs and dives. Fourteen years later he figured out gravity. Spin came first for him, and should for you, too.


Make The Serve Roll Like A Wheel

11-1bTell your munchkin, or bunch of munchkins, whatever you’ve got, that the tennis ball is nothing but a wheel, and that you are going to give them the “feel of the wheel.” They will remember this for years. It’s tactile, visual, and proceeds from the known to the unknown. When you think of a ball as a wheel, it makes understanding spin pretty simple.

Turn a bike upside-down. If you know you’re going to teach this drill, make sure there is a bicycle in the vicinity and that you have actually turned it over, stood it on its seat without first getting a hernia, and tried to roll the back tire, first with your hand, then with your racket.11-2b

Have each student get the feel of the wheel by brushing up the back tire to make it roll forward, first with their hand, then with the racket. Then, have them brush it the other way for backspin. One hits down on the equator, one hits up.

If you are working with students who are trying to understand the topspin rally, 11-3btell them that the ball is a wheel that is rolling forward as it comes to them, and their job is to make it roll the other way when it leaves.

To demonstrate this, feed a ball to them with topspin and then one with backspin. Every ball, once it hits the ground (bouncepoint), takes forward roll. Their job is to make it go the other way. The game from the baseline is mostly topspin. Inside the serve line it’s mostly backspin.


Serving Over The Back Fence

12-1bAfter they’ve gotten the feel of the wheel, take them outside the court and make them hit up and over the back fence with topspin lobs.  What you want to do at this point is take what they just learned from the bike and apply it to the fence: make the ball roll like a wheel. The statistics in tennis shout at you not to hit a flat ball, but to make it spin. The preferred spin is topspin (forward roll). Brushing up on the ball, makes it come down faster.

The fundamental fact is: their racket has to be a foot below the ball and traveling up before they hit it. I’ve done this drill a thousand times with forehands, backhands, and serves.12-2b

Hitting over a fence demonstrates two behaviors of a rapidly rotating potato: first, it arcs and dives, second, it hits and runs. I abbreviate “arc and dive, hit and run” as “ad har.” At the end of a day, if I did the fence drill on the forehand side, I’d write: (FH) ad har. Backhand would be (BH). Serve was (SV). Come up with your own short-hand_it’ll save you a lot of time. But do keep notes if you are teaching anybody.

12-3bIf you toss it, toss it underhand on a big, slow, looping arc, like slow-pitch softball. Then duck if you want to propagate the species. Feed them two balls. First ball they hit goes over the fence and lands in the court on the near side of the net, then hops the net. Second ball goes over the fence plus the net before it bounces. What’s the difference? A click or two of elevation and a shot of kickapoo joy-juice.


When You Can’t Find A Wall

13-1bFind yourself a Target (as in big store). The bigger the store, the better the back wall. Warehouses are your best bet. But any brick wall with a sidewalk or asphalt surface in front of it will do. It’s an ideal place to practice for 20-30 minutes. If you hit a ball every other second or so, you can get in 1,000 hits pretty quick. Every thousand hits reveals a piece of the puzzle to the neuro-muscular pathways, motor-physical highways, bio-mechanical rails to trails. Synapses fire. Muscle-memory takes place. Learning occurs.

If you are in a town where things get hot, search around for a covered parking lot. If it’s after work or on the weekend,13-2b you might have the whole enchilada to yourselves. I guarantee you there is a wall in there. Or, wait ’til later in the day when the building itself shades you. Where you find a wall doesn’t matter. That you find a wall, does.

If you are out back of the Target store, make sure your munchkin doesn’t get assassinated by some stumblebum living in the Dempsey Dumpster at the other end of the parking lot. Sit in the car and read your book. Or, put down the nook and hit with the kid. If you can’t hit with them, because you don’t play tennis, bring a baseball glove. They hit, you catch and throw.13-3b

And let them listen to the music they like. It grooves their moves. If the only thing they’ve got is a boombox, make them turn it to low. If they won’t turn it to low, and you forgot to bring your earplugs, don’t worry_they sell them inside.


The Best Walls For Tennis Practice

14-8bIn one of the most mind-boggling famous-fumbles ever, the American education system (elementary, secondary and college) forgot to put in walls.

Middle Schools got it right for some reason. Why? I have no idea. Some high schools put them in, but put them in on the tennis court, or the basketball court, so if somebody’s playing, you can’t practice. Middle Schools are your best bet.

14-1bIf you live in a temperate climate, you might want to do a search for handball walls. Include a zipcode or town name. Venice Beach in the LA area, for instance, has a great set of outdoor concrete walls for handball, as does Palo Alto’s Mitchell Park in the Bay Area up north.

Handball walls are fabulous for practicing tennis. You may have to beat up a few handball players, but that’s a small price to pay. Handball walls are gold. They have tall back-walls and two side-walls. If you hit crooked, who cares?

14-4bTennis clubs always have backboards. Sometimes their rebound surfaces are bright green wood or cushions attached to the fence. Other times they are portable and made of nylon netting with aluminum poles and wheels. Anything that gets you the reps is good. Without the reps, fergit it.

And let’s not forget ball machines, especially the portable, battery operated kind that fit in your hatchback.

This is Part 1 of a 2 part post. You can view Part 2 by clicking here.